When Horse the Band make music, it sounds like a demented soundtrack to Castlevania. The five Californians call their sound “Nintendocore,” recreating those infamous 8-bit sounds of early video games into their bizarre version of metal music.
Keyboardist Erik Engstrom is still credited with “Game Boy” as an instrument on their newest record, 2009’s Desperate Living, although the band is increasingly toning down its gamer hints on its fourth full-length album since 2003.
The 12 new songs seem to be inspired by two new visions: the John Waters movie of the same name (a creepy lesbians-on-the-lamb film) and the band’s crazy upheaval since 2007’s A Natural Death (where they’ve torn through three drummers, three agents, two bassists, a bunch of labels and been sued). The new record is full of frustrations from a band that’s a little too weird to really ever make it big, mixing a fury of hardcore, noise rock and electro into something that sounds like dying robots, exploding keyboards, laser-fitted guitars and that Legend of Zelda ocarina flute of time. We e-mailed keyboardist Erik Engstrom to get the full scope on Horse, the album and its constant musical misadventures, coming to Peabody’s Saturday night. —Keith Gribbins
Is the band on tour now? I assume HORSE the Band is always on some constantly chugging, around-the-world tour.
I am actually at my parents’ house in Lake Forest, Calif., right now. Sometimes we go home and rest for a while. I have three days in between six weeks in Africa and the start of our U.S. tour right now.
You were just on “The Reigns in Africa Tour,” which began in late March and extended into April? How did that insanity go?
It was .... weird .. and good. 12 shows in 17 days is really weird, especially since three were in the Cape Town area and three were in the Johannesburg area. We aren’t used to not playing every night and not moving. So it felt like the tour never really started. It felt like a vacation with occasional shows, but South Africa and Mozambique were pretty awesome places. It’s hard to convey anything about them in one line, other than whatever your perception is, it’s probably 100 percent wrong in a good way, unless you’ve been there, even if you consider yourself informed.
Do you have a favorite tour destination? Since you guys tour the earth [the band’s Earth Tour traveled 40 countries], perhaps you can tell us what’s your favorite town to play?
I think we really only get genuinely excited when we are in a place where you can tell the scene hasn’t been ruined yet, where everyone is in a band because they want to be and they’re passionate and don’t get any weird status for being in one. Where they’re still outcasts. Kind of like... Mozambique. Or, I don’t know. Anywhere like that. There aren’t many places left I don’t think. Probably the best city to play in is Moscow or Minsk, and New York and L.A. and Singapore and Hong Kong.
Let’s talk about Desperate Living — great album — you guys are really capturing your sound and vision. And well speaking of around the world tours, the exhaustion of doing your infamous Earth Tour is when a lot of these songs were written? Is that right?
We wrote them after the tour was over, and after another European tour, but yeah, I think... in that year of insanity we really cut a lot of bullshit out of our lives. We were really all actually at the end of our rope at one time or another and realized what “real” emotions felt like or something. I’m not sure if that is going to make much sense but I think it’s what happened. So we cut a lot of unconscious posturing out of our music and had much more focused vision and understanding of what we were feeling and wanted to convey. Other than this nebulous sort of... ehhhhh about disillusionment in college or some bullshit.
Now this album seems to be inspired by two majors here — the John Waters film and the crazy band upheaval since 2007’s A Natural Death. Let’s start with the former; you’re a big John Waters fan? What did you enjoy about that creepy lesbians-on-the-lamb film?
Desperate Living made us feel dirty in a way we didn’t fully comprehend. It was scary the first time we watched it and actually depressing. At some point it became normal to us and relatable. Then we knew we were ready to write our own. It wasn’t really about the band upheaval as much. That’s always been the norm in this band. Ha ha.
Perhaps you should consider touring Mortville [the fictitious town in the movie Desperate Living].
Man, I think we have a few times already. Illichivsk, Ukraine, Wuhan, China. Anywhere in Ohio actually.
Horse has had quite a ride over the last two plus years — you’ve torn through three drummers, three agents, two bassists, a bunch of labels and been sued (for what by the way?). Was there a point, where you like, fuck this, I’m done?
Yeah, there have been a lot of especially frustrating moments but then you realize what a pussy you would be if you were upset about your life because of what’s happening with your stupid band. I don’t know. The most annoying shit was the lawsuit. I don’t want to talk about it because I feel like it will only make the situation worse, but basically we pay money to play our music. Like we spend our time writing music and touring, and then we pay these weird companies that are supposed to help you actually make a living, and they sue us, or at the very least, everyone on our “payroll” makes more than the actual band members, and if you consider hourly time investment it is like a ridiculous joke. That is kind of weird, but who fucking cares I guess. They have to sit at their computers every day and we only have to sit at them about half the year.
Did those frustrations turn into inspirations and seep into the album?
None of the legal/business shit is on the album. It is more like the idea of looking at a person, any person, and feeling sad. If you relate to that then you can probably feel what you are supposed to when listening to the album. If that idea makes no sense to you then the album is probably totally lost, which is ok.
How has the sound changed? You’ve gone through a few drummers and bassists, and your “Nintendocore” label has turned into more of a uniquely alt-metal vibe.
On [2007’s] A Natural Death I think we were trying to be very technical and very like... emotional at the same time — except we were all like working jobs and living this really domestic life with nothing happening of any interest. We really had nothing to write about, so it came out sounding cheesy and forced like a movie soundtrack. I guess on Desperate Living we were just like, fuck technicality, let’s just hit hard... and we had ideas to convey, so it was actually much more natural and heartfelt or something. We just had a bad couple years there. We got too involved in the music business by accident and we had to destroy everything cause it suuuuuucked.
With each new album, it sounds like front man Nathan Winneke’s vocals are getting more harsh and guttural; he’s finding his death growl. Is that just kind of the band’s sound growing more fangy and fierce?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just his voice changing. I don’t think it’s on purpose. He is really quite a man now. He is also one of the only vocalists I know who hasn’t watched that stupid DVD The Art of Screaming or whatever, by that girl. He actually just screams as loud as he can. He doesn’t do some fake quiet shit like all the other tough dudes with tattoos out there, worried about their fancy voice.
You seem to have quite a few guests on the record too — K-Slax, Jamie Stewart and a personal favorite Ukrainian classical pianist Valentina Lisitsa. How did you get her to play on “Rape Escape?” What’s that song about anyway?
The song is about escaping a rape I guess. Not the lyrics really. I mean, they kind of are but are meant to create a certain atmosphere of frantic dark fear. Or, the whole song is. We weren’t trying to glorify rape or make it funny... It’s like, authors can write about rape, or anything like taboo, and explore it. We were creating a feeling, nothing more nothing less. Valentina is the best pianist in the world, in my opinion at least, and a lot of other people who know about her. She is totally down for shocking people just like her favorite composers used to in their day. She picked the Prokofiev piece saying it was perfect for the feel of the song. Oh, I went to her recital and just talked to her after. If you ever want to actually be blown away at a show you couldn’t top what she does.
So now you’re on Vagrant. You guys don’t seem much for labels or maybe they don’t seem much for you. How has the experience been with Vagrant?
Vagrant is cool. We’ve had a very minimal relationship with them since our album came out, but I guess that’s cool. No one bought it so there’s no use pouring more money into it. They are nice people and they tried their hardest and they don’t do any of the dumb shit other labels do.
Horse has always been associated with videogame culture and perhaps someone in the band penned the term “Nintendocore.” How has video-game culture influenced that band?
I don’t think it has influenced us whatsoever for years now. Really the sound happened because that square wave 8-bit keyboard could really cut through all the noise a heavy band makes, so I used it to play leads. Then it kind of lent itself to writing a certain style of riff, so we ran with it. I mean, we still do at times, but it’s not like we are being influenced by videogames. None of us even play videogames. Ha ha, we know absolutely nothing about videogames.
What makes that video-game sound in your music? I’ve read you have special keyboards that mimic that 8-bit sound of early Nintendo and Sega hits. And I notice you still have Game Boy under your instruments.
It’s a really basic square wave. I also use something called LSDJ on a Game Boy to program some parts. They’re in the songs “Murder,” “I Think We Are Both Suffering from the Same Crushing Metaphysical Crisis,” “HORSE the Song,” and “Shapeshift.”
Are you still promoting, self-booking and self-financing your tours?
Occasionally. We have booking agents in the U.S. and Europe and really reliable friends in other countries now. So booking isn’t as involved as it once was, but we’re really proactive. We kind of stopped self-financing our own tours. We decided that after 10 years of showing up, other people can take the risk if they want to see us.
I’ve also heard the band is currently creating a six-DVD, personalized hardcover book covering the Earth Tour 2008. Is that still in the works?
Yeah, but you can order it now. All the info is at www.horsethebandearthtour.com. I think it will be the most special and personal item any band ever has ever put out. Not to toot our own horn. It just will.
Horse is a fiercely independent band known for booking crazy long, self-promoted tours. What is the live experience like for people who haven’t seen you? I imagine its flame throwers, jet backs, enemas and guitar orgies?
Ha ha. It’s not that crazy. Just imagine that a band could actually move while playing their music instead of doing feeble fake head bangs during really easy parts. By the end of the third song we all look like we stepped out of a lake. I feel like we are one of the only bands I have ever seen who is actually excited to be playing their music, so excited we can’t physically contain ourselves. Playing the way other heavy bands do doesn’t even seem possible to me. If the kids in the crowd are sweatier than you are then you are a worthless band member.
Horse is definitely an unconventional band that I’m sure doesn’t fit on most people’s radar. Just your sound is so unique, let alone your insane worldwide tours and ape-shit performances. So what’s next? Where do you go from here?
I don’t know where we can go with the band. I think it is time to stop soon and start something else.